Big Society - should we sign up?

As a social entrepreneur I feel like I really ought to support the Big Society. The idea of people, not government, deciding what they need and how it should be delivered appeals to me a lot. Practical, flexible, responsive, innovative solutions come out of unexpected places and in many ways, this is what Poached is all about.

Yet there are two big problems I just keep running up against when it comes to this Big Society idea of David Cameron's.

1. It's a political idea that's attached to a political ideology that I'm not sure I want to be aligned with. Social enterprise isn't the place for party politics and I'm sure a lot of people in the third sector are finding this political association a bit uncomfortable. So, I can't see it succeeding unless we can find a way to depoliticise 'Big Society' and convince communities that they really do have the power. But for this to happen, the money has to follow the initiatives. Which brings me to the next big problem.

2. Where's the money? The public sector doesn't have it - in fact public sector cuts are already having an affect on social enterprise support. The private sector doesn't have it - and in the UK a high proportion of private sector companies rely on public sector business so the recovery isn't looking so great after all. The Government doesn't seem to have it (or certainly doesn't want to give it away) and the third sector sure doesn't have it. It seems that the banks do have some of it - in disused bank accounts - and this is going to be pulled together into a Big Society Bank, due to open in April 2011, with somewhere between £60 million and £100 million. But loan funding alone won't be enough. And volunteers won't be able to run public services for nothing.

The Government is right in thinking that the people who use services and the staff who provide them know how best to redesign those services. Many of them already have - and we have a thriving social enterprise and charity sector to prove it.

But what I've learnt since setting up a social enterprise is this. Disadvantaged people do need support to find their own solutions, projects do need funding, and people do need to get paid for their hard work.

Thanks to UnLtd and the Big Society Network for getting the thinking started with their event last Wednesday. Find out more about the event.

Working with young people

Easily bored, no attention span, noisy, fussy eaters, expect the world, think adults don't know what they're doing, lack of appreciation - it turns out everything they say about Generation Y is true.

Until now I've managed to avoid working with young people and I still don't really know how it happened. A conversation between my administrator, Kayla, and our director of sales and youth projects, Lucy, a hastily composed funding application, some frantic policy writing and form filling and - poof! We had ourselves a youth film project.

Well, I'd worked with unemployed, homeless, depressed, disabled, incredibly intelligent and sometimes difficult people since I started Poached (and before that too). I figured I could handle it.

At first it was frustrating. They listened - I think - to the brilliant trainers we'd lined up for them. Experienced filmmakers and screenwriters who'd worked for the BBC and Ginger Productions had volunteered their time for us. But our young crew were bored, they hated the lunch we'd provided and were itching to get stuck in to the filming.

Then it was stressful. We had a film to make. They were lukewarm when it came to creating a script. It was starting to feel like we'd have to drag the young crew through a process they'd completely lost interest in - and this was only week 2!

Then I learnt something. We'd thought it was their project, told them it was their project, encouraged them to make it their project. But we hadn't acted like it was. And they felt like we weren't listening to them. After a morning working with our film production trainer they called me in.

"We're changing the script."

OK, I thought. Let's see where this goes.

"It's going to be more of a drama than a documentary."

Panic! That meant actors, mocking up locations, a full script.

"It's going to be a metaphor - you know what that means?"

I could barely contain my rage but I fought the urge to throw the Concise Oxford at them.

Then they went on to describe what they'd come up with. It was creative, ambitious, a hell of a lot of work. They referenced some of the techniques they'd learnt in some of our more "boring" sessions. I couldn't help but smile. I questioned them on why they thought it would work, if they'd watch it, if they were willing to put the work in. Their enthusiasm and commitment was evident. I couldn't have been more relieved.

They wrote the script, found the actors, agreed the locations, did all the paperwork, got all the filming done on an incredibly tight schedule and now we're in the editing phase. They've come up with a far more ambitious short film than I would have dreamt of doing in the time and they've pretty much pulled it off.

It will probably seem obvious to anyone who's used to working with young people (or any other group for that matter), but there's an incredibly powerful response when you stop trying to help people do what you want them to do and genuinely support them to do something that they believe in. Far too many projects, I believe, fall into the trap of the former. I'm just glad I had some Gen Ys around to jolt me out of it.

You can follow their progress and book tickets for the free screening at Rich Mix 0n 19 August on the Hackney Hounds website.

Explain yourself

I've been working on core messages for a few social enterprise and charity clients recently (not to mention my own) so I thought I'd share a few tips on how to explain what you do in writing.

You know how it is. You've been working flat out on a project, service or new venture for months, maybe years. You know it's good. You know people will want your services. You've got everything ready to go except...

How do you describe it in writing?

There'll be plenty of times you'll be asked for a sentence or two to describe your organisation. It will need to be compelling and get straight to the point. Marketers refers to this as the 'core message' or 'core description' and it is closely linked to your elevator pitch and your visual identity.

You've most likely developed some patter to intrigue that dreamt-of funder in a lift and you've quite likely got a fairly straight-forward way of explaining what you're up to to your mum. But when it comes to putting it in writing it can still be difficult to capture exactly what you do.

Your core message could be captured in a few different forms.

Strapline - explains your proposition in just a few words, eg, Tesco's "Every little helps" or Cancer Research UK's "Together we will beat cancer". Straplines need to be exceptionally strong and accurately reflect what you do.

Short description - how you would normally describe your organisation and what it does. A short description should be no more than two short sentences and would likely appear on your website homepage or on your 'about us' page.

Long description - a full description of your organisation and its services. This might include bullet points of the areas that you work in and describe a bit more about who you work with.

Key messages - things you want your audience to know about you, different aspects of your services, and what makes you different or unique. You may have several key messages that can be weaved into any communications materials you produce.

1. Identify your core audience

Now, anyone who knows me will know that I'm always carrying on about the audience but this is absolutely crucial. If your market is business start ups, there's no point describing your services to them in the same way that you would to your bank manager or to funders. Think about who the core audience is and focus on them. What words would they use to describe their need and the solution you provide?

2. Think about your words - carefully

The way you describe things within your organisation is often not the best way to communicate them to outsiders. And the words that seem perfectly obvious to you might have unintended meanings in a different context. For example, would you really want "engaged staff" or "green" airline passengers? Think about all the possible interpretations before you settle on something.

3. Get outside help

If it's your project, chances are you won't be able to get enough distance from it to explain it clearly to the uninitiated. If possible, budget for specialist help (from an organisation like Poached, for example). You'll find that a new, professional perspective can really simplify and clarify what you're trying to say. Regardless of whether you get help or if you try to tackle it yourself, you will need to test your words out on as many people as you can - particularly your intended audience.

4. Decide on something and stick to it

Tweaking the way you describe yourself too often will make you look disjointed and confused. Over time, organisations do evolve different ways of describing themselves but make sure your published descriptions (on your website and on your latest leaflet, for example) match up. If you do have a few distinct audiences and you want to tailor a description for each, great, but make sure it's clear who each description is for. Also, try to always use the some common elements in each.

5. Create a style sheet so there's no doubt

All media outlets and large companies have style guides so why shouldn't you? Having a style sheet will help you and your staff to remain consistent, which will strengthen your brand. (It doesn't have to be as comprehensive as the The Guardian's free online style guide.) Agree within your organisation on the dictionary you will defer to ( provides a good online version) and put in writing little points such as how (and if) you abbreviate your company name, whether you prefer to use the less formal "we" and "you" in business materials, and any other common terms.

Of course there's a lot more to it that this, but this should give you an idea of how to start thinking about describing your organisation in writing. If you'd like further advice or help from Poached Creative, please contact us.

The rise and rise of Kayla Whiting

"Are you God today then?" asks Amber.
"Not yet," says Kayla.
"God with L-plates on," Amber suggests.
"Yeah," Kayla grins.

My 19-year-old administrator is bossing around a film crew, interviewing me, arranging the room to get a better depth of field and negotiating with the builders downstairs to get some quiet while we film.

In the eight weeks since Kayla started with us she's learnt more than she ever imagined possible about social enterprise, and her own strengths. Turns out she's a brilliant networker, relishes searching out funding opportunities and loves new media. Fantastic for me. She's also in the process of becoming God - of our multimedia production projects at any rate.

One of her questions to me, on camera, was what's my biggest achievement since starting Poached. I had to answer that it was hiring her. I've been a manager in various organisations for nearly 10 years now but having my own business and my own staff to develop is more rewarding than I could have ever imagined.

Kayla's throwing herself into everything she does and getting more and more excited about the idea of social enterprise. She's got some fantastic ideas about how to engage young people in Hackney, but I'll let her tell you about that.

See her profile on our who's involved page (photo shoot scheduled for a sunny day), follow her on Twitter and read her first blog.

If you were still wondering what Poached is about...

I couldn't put it any better than one of our trainees, Brij, who has just got his first full-time job as a care worker in Tottenham. What that has to do with writing and communications, you might well ask.

I've always wanted Poached to be about helping people to find out what they're good at and gain the confidence to go on and do the things they want to do with their lives. Communications is the world I know and understand, and it's a great way to help people open up to oneanother and to the thoughts and ideas within themselves.

The way Brij explains it really touched a chord with me (and, without wanting to be too soppy about it, his email did bring a warm tear to my eye).

On Fri, Jan 8, 2010 at 3:56 PM, Brij Burrun wrote:
Hey Jess,

I got your text, and thanks for sending the reference.

I'm also very thankful for the support you gave me whilst at Poached, as I think it has helped me a lot in finding a job that I am interested in (Health Care).

I honestly think, if it hadnt been for Poached, I probably wouldn't have even bothered looking for a job in the care field, so right now I would still probably be unemployed and very frustrated.

Thanks again for everything - your time, support, information, guidance, training, confidence, and motivation...

Will definatly be in touch, and let you know how it all goes.

Take care.


Read Brij's blog from his time at Poached Creative.